Poet Of The Week

Katy Ilonka Gero

     April 13–19, 2020

Katy Ilonka Gero is a poet, essayist and scientist. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, the Ploughshares blog, Synaesthesia, the Blueshift Journal (RIP) and elsewhere. She participated in Catapult’s first year-long Poetry Generator workshop led by Angel Nafis and is currently working on a poetry manuscript about climate change and the ocean. Her computer science research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. This past winter, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Jay Deshpande’s Individual Artist Development manuscript consultation.

Our Ocean

 

The ocean wants more of the land

and will take it, will carve into the flank

of a glacier, will wrench from the bleeding paws

of the polar bear the last ice floe, will inhale your town’s

sporadic and dashing rain, our ocean, she has the arms

of every sea monster you ever thought might

pull you under and the voice of a sun-baked

siren whose flesh sizzles on bare rocks

she has yet to consume, she has desire, like you,

she cannot quench but she is desperate now,

and older, has learned the fire beneath her

will outlive us all so throws up disfigured fish

like an offering, like a last warning, like a lover

she cannot bear to leave but cannot stand

to keep, she does not know her own depth

but figures an extra centimeter or ten won’t hurt the search,

and don’t those humans love to reach for the stars,

she’ll try anything, and wouldn’t you, to protect

that unknown, darkened thing inside.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I remember when Angel Nafis first started talking to us about writing a whole book of poems. She was like, it’s okay, no it’s great, to lean into your obsessions. A book is often someone asking the same question over and over again, tilting it all the different ways to see what comes out. So I was thinking about my obsession with jellyfish—for a couple years I kept doing these huge paintings of jellyfish—and how I’d never written about that. I’d also recently watched all of The Blue Planet, and was obsessed with the strangeness of the sea. So I was in this ocean headspace, and I started to think: how does the ocean feel about climate change? If the ocean is a character, what does it mean that sea levels are rising? What does the ocean want? As I was writing the poem, it suddenly became clear to me that the ocean is PISSED, and rightly so.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve just completed the first draft of a manuscript called Dear Ocean, which is the result of diving into my obsession with the ocean. The ocean is this stunning metaphor for the body, and how weird and wonderful and scary it is, but I can’t think about the ocean without thinking about our destruction of the climate—and therefore the destruction of each other. I’m really proud of the work, but I also know there’s still a long way to go; I need to go back and look at it with fresh eyes.

What’s a good day for you?

I remember once as a kid, maybe like thirteen, I went to a sleepover and we stayed up all night talking and slept hardly at all and we still woke up feeling awake and alive and excited for the day. I’m always looking for that feeling of aliveness, the eagerness to wake up in the morning.

What brought you to New York?

Grad school. I had been working at tech start-ups in Boston and was tired of that culture. I wanted to do something decidedly not evil, and something where I had more freedom to pursue my own interests. I got accepted into Columbia’s computer science PhD program, but I was pretty nervous about moving to New York. I felt like everyone I knew lived here because they were in love with the city, whereas for me it was kind of happenstance. It took about nine months for me to fall in love.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

Home is such a tricky question for me. I grew up in Sydney, Australia, until I was fifteen, then we moved to northern Virginia to be near my grandparents, so we could help take care of them. Then I moved to Boston for college and lived there for eight years, and now I’m in NYC. (I seem to be doing an East Coast tour.) They all feel like home in a different way. Australia is clearly my childhood home, but I’ve never been an adult there; all I know are secret hideout spots by the beach and the best malls to hang around. Boston is where I felt like I became an adult—where I first rented an apartment, bought a spatula, did my taxes. Now I live in Harlem, and I love it A LOT. I love my tiny apartment where I lofted my bed to make more space. I love the bodegas and multiple hardware stores. But I’m not sure I’ll live here forever.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

All my non-grad-school friends live in Brooklyn! So I’m there all the time. Brooklyn is so wild to me because even though I go all the time it’s not enough to really get my bearings. I have a terrible sense of direction: every time I go it’s like a whole new city. Yet it’s also distinctively Brooklyn. So much culture from Brooklyn is exported elsewhere. It’s kind of like LA that way. I remember visiting LA as an adult and we drove through Orange County and I was like—that’s a real place?! That’s what Brooklyn is like.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I think one of the best parts of moving to NYC for me has been the poetry community. (Sounds silly or trite. But I came here to study computers!) One of the first things I did when I moved here was start attending a poetry book club at Book Culture (on 112th St). Lauren Paris runs it, and she had done a ton of Brooklyn Poets workshops, and seemed to have met all the poets whose books we were reading! She introduced me to this world of poetry readings and actually talking to poets. Then I started this year-long class with Angel Nafis and everyone in that class is such a superstar, both in their own poetry but also in the way they care about each other. Community seems to be less about the poetry itself and more about caring for each other as we do this thing that seems to be totally crazy sometimes.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

My crew from Catapult for an intense amount of care and support: Caitlin Wolper, Geleisa George, Mary Ma, Alice Liang, Maghan Baptiste, Sophie Christenberry, Dante Clark, Jennifer Lai, Hannah Schneider, Diane Exavier, Alexis Aceves Garcia, Leena Soman Navani, Kim Mayo. Max Neely-Cohen isn’t a poet, but he’s my favorite Brooklynite hands-down. Allison Parrish for broadening what poetry is and can do. Lauren Paris for teaching me how to read broadly and with friends.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I took poetry workshops with Erica Funkhouser in college (when I was studying engineering) and she was such an inspiration. I’m sure I wrote really terrible poetry in college, but she said the most important thing was to keep writing, that it was a muscle and I shouldn’t let it atrophy. She kept inviting me back to her workshops, after I had graduated, to tell people it was true! You could keep writing after the workshops were over! It was so important to have someone who thought this crazy thing was worth the time, especially as I was working in technology companies. Since coming to New York, I’ve spent a year in Angel Nafis’s class and aside from Angel being the most inspiring and supportive and intelligent and on-point human being ever, ever-ever, I think she taught me that poems can be personal without using “I” and vice versa. I’m pretty nervous writing about myself, and I think she showed me how to do that in a way that makes sense for me.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I just finished Saeed Jones’s Prelude to Bruise and Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. They’re super different but I’m so glad I read them side-by-side. Prelude is intensely sonic and lyrical; I think what he’s doing with sound in that book is just unmatched. Catalog has a more narrative, wandering bent, like walking down a garden path and getting distracted and realizing you ended up in a field of sunflowers. The line breaks are to die for. But they both deal with beauty in the face of destruction and death and prejudice. I think the epigraph in Prelude, from Kafka, is so perfect: “The man in ecstasy and the man drowning—both throw up their arms.”

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

There are three famous female nonfiction writers I’m ashamed (truly ashamed) never to have read: Rebecca Solnit, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. Maybe during quarantine! Though my brother wants me to read Proust with him, which might take up the rest of our lives.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I’m always reading multiple books, and sometimes that means I get distracted and end up having to start a book again. But I also sometimes make a big commitment to a book and schedule it, planning x pages per day—that’s how I read books I think of as “project books,” like Middlemarch, Infinite Jest, Team of Rivals or Gödel, Escher, Bach. Although I’m often reading in multiple genres, I tend either to be focusing on poetry, or on fiction, or on nonfiction. That sounds contradictory, but it has to do with the rate I’m reading them.

Right now, because of quarantine, I’m trying to read through the backlog of books I bought but haven’t read yet. (I’m normally a library girl and get tons of books out at a time, which can be problematic for the books I’ve bought … I miss going to the library.) I definitely prefer physical books, but I appreciate my Kindle when I’m traveling, or sometimes I use it to read something my parents are reading. I would love to take notes all the time! I think annotating books is the most beautiful thing. But I don’t always do it.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I would like to write more in form. I really love forms that focus on repetition—I’ve never written a sestina or a pantoum. I recently wrote a ghazal and I thought it was amazing what the repeated word could do. It’s so meditative and rhythmic and musical.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I’ll write anywhere. I try to write regularly, but sometimes I just feel something come to me and I try to write it down before it escapes, whether I’m on the subway or a bus or even if I’m walking I’ll try to dictate it to my phone. Sometimes I’m reciting lines to myself as I fall asleep and I hope I remember them when I wake up. I feel like I’m a stereotypically busy, overcommitted millennial, but also I literally have another job, so I read and write wherever I can.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love the inside of people’s apartments. They’re all so strange and different, with a million coats of paint on every wall and old, solid-wood doors where you wouldn’t expect them. I especially love when people have a window that looks out into the alley, where you get to see the back of other people’s apartments through the trees.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate this empty space.

And what I inhale you whispered once,

For every open room in me as good as blossoms in you.

Why Brooklyn?

The trees.